The New York Times recently released an article about a study done following former contestants of the popular TV show “The Biggest Loser.” What the study found may come as a surprise: most of, if not all, of the contestants regained all, most of, or even more than the weight they had started the show with. (Read the full article here). These individuals spent months working out for hours each day, eating low-calorie diets, had teams of professional supervision, successfully lost hundreds of pounds and then gained it all back? How can this be? And if it didn’t work out well for these individuals who were committing their life to fitness (many of whom quit their job to pursue fitness full-time), how can the average person with a hectic work schedule and busy life ever expect to achieve successful weight loss?
According to the study, they found that these contestants, upon returning home, began to realize that they just couldn’t eat the same amount of food as they once could and maintain their new body weight. Some were forced to eat up to 800 calories less than what would be expected of a normal person of similar size. Additionally, many could not keep up the rigorous exercise schedule they once enjoyed while on the show (sometimes 8-9 hours of exercise everyday). What the study found was that the bodies of these individuals expressed an extreme aversion to maintaining their new body weights, or struggled to maintain their new “set point.”
Set Point Theory
Set Point Theory dictates that the body has a natural “set point” or a pre-determined body weight that it biologically seeks to maintain. As your weight fluctuates, the body adapts in order to remain at a constant body weight.1 For example, when you cut calories to lose weight your metabolism slows down, making it more difficult to lose additional weight (and easier to regain the lost weight). If you eat excess calories to gain weight your metabolism speeds up, aiding in weight loss. That is what researchers found when they studied the Biggest Loser contestants. As a result of the significant weight lost, their metabolisms were so slow that it made it nearly impossible NOT to gain weight.
“A Basic Biological Reality”
Does this mean that anyone who hopes to lose weight is doomed to suffer from a slow metabolism in order to maintain their weight “status quo?” Well, the answer is both yes and no. To fully answer this question, it’s important to first understand why your metabolism does slow down after weight loss. At the most fundamental level, weight loss occurs when the body consumes less energy (in the form of calories) than it expends (through physical activity). Therefore, in order to achieve weight loss, you have to eat less food than you burn on a daily basis.
Okay, that seems simple enough: Go on a diet, eat less, and then successfully lose weight. However, spending enough time in a calorie deficit, your body will adapt to the new intake of energy. Set point theory aside, after a time your body becomes more efficient at using its available energy. Therefore, if you once consumed 2,000 calories to maintain your body weight (all of your body’s biological processes and physical activity needs equal your calorie intake), but now consume 1,400 calories to lose weight, your body will eventually be able to complete all of its necessary processes for only 1,400 calories per day. Essentially, your body adapts to become MORE EFFICIENT at doing work (resulting in a slowed metabolism). Metabolic efficiency is not beneficial for weight loss. Once this adaptation occurs, your body only needs 1,400 calories per day to maintain whatever weight you may be at. If you jump back to 2,000 calories (the number that used to be your maintenance level), you will find that this number actually causes you to gain weight.
This is exactly what happened to the Biggest Loser contestants. They were at a calorie deficit for so long (and an extremely low calorie deficit at that), that when they returned home and consumed a normal amount of calories it was at an excess of their metabolic needs (even if not out of the ordinary)—causing them to regain their lost weight. According to the researchers, this biological reality is what makes it extremely hard, or even impossible, for individuals to successfully lose weight and keep it off. While this biological process of metabolic slowdown occurs anytime someone loses weight, this does not mean lost hope for those seeking to shed extra body fat.
The truth is there is a set point that your body likes to stay at. The good news is that this set point can be changed. How can you combat this metabolic slowdown to successfully lose AND keep the weight off? There are two phases: 1) a GRADUAL reduction of calories during the weight loss phase, and 2) a GRADUAL reintroduction of calories during the maintenance phase—also known as reverse dieting. Let’s look at where the Biggest Loser contestants went wrong here. Upon starting the show, their calories were immediately and substantially reduced, sometimes to less than 1,000 calories. Once the body’s metabolism adjusts to this new intake level, the ONLY way to continue losing weight is to further reduce calorie intake. Here’s the kicker: there is a minimum level of calories you should consume to be healthy (although arbitrary, that number seems to be around 1,200cal/day for women, and 1,500-1,600cal/day for men). Once you reach this minimum, and your metabolism catches up, there is no where left to go and still maintain a healthy diet that provides all of the appropriate nutrients your body needs to function. Therefore, weight loss comes to a stop, and you are left with only one option: eat more and regain the weight you lost.
So the Biggest Loser contestants’ metabolisms caught up to them, and they couldn’t reduce their caloric intake any further, leaving them to regain the lost weight. To combat this scenario, it is important to gradually reduce caloric intake. How gradually should you reduce calories? The specific number depends on your specific circumstances and activity level. Ideally, you want to consume the greatest number of calories you can while still losing weight. There will be some trial and error, but reducing calories by about 5-10% is a good starting point. Once you drop calories and stop seeing weight loss progress, reduce by another 5-10% until you’ve reached your goal. This process is by no means quick, but it will help make sure your progress is lasting.
Let’s say you’ve gradually reduced calories to achieve your weight loss goal, but now what do you do? You don’t want to stay at this reduced caloric intake forever. Many people jump right back to consuming as much food as they did pre-weight loss. As we’ve discussed earlier, this is a mistake because that former maintenance level will now cause you to gain weight. Instead of jumping up in calories, you will want to complete a process known as “reverse-dieting.” Reverse dieting is the opposite of the gradual calorie-cutting process you did to lose weight, only now you are going to gradually reintroduce calories into your diet. The goal is to allow your metabolism to speed back up so that you can consume a higher amount of calories to maintain your new body weight. By adding 2-5% more calories over time (repeating the process after a few weeks), you can gradually raise your maintenance calorie level while maintaining your new body weight (if done correctly). Again, this is not a quick solution, but it is a lasting one.
Additionally, another way to speed up metabolism is to participate in regular strength training. Many of the show’s workouts are cardio-heavy (because it’s more exciting to watch on TV), leaving out an integral part of the process. Muscle is metabolically active, meaning it takes energy to maintain and causes you to burn more calories doing just about anything. You burn a certain number of calories walking around the grocery store. Add 5lbs of muscles to your body and you will burn more calories walking around that same store. By participating in regular strength training you can increase your caloric needs, allowing you to eat additional calories. Combine regular strength training with reverse dieting, and now you have a recipe to speed up your metabolism to successfully alter your “set point,” allowing you to maintain your new body weight.
A Right Way To Eat
Another problem noted in the article was that “the only way to maintain weight loss is to be hungry all the time.” The Biggest Loser contestants found themselves craving certain, not-so-good-for-you foods once they returned home from the show. Additionally, their loss of an entire team of professionals to steer them in the right direction made it even more difficult to stay on track. Partially caused by the extreme calorie-cutting, the contestants learned that in order to lose weight you need to eat very little—which will make you hungry all the time. There is only so long an individual can fight cravings before they give in.
If you gradually reduce calories, and choose the right foods, there is no reason you should be hungry all the time. Hunger is a way of signaling that you haven’t received the appropriate nutrients to nourish your body. Making sure to eat appropriate amounts of carbohydrates, fats, and protein will ensure you are getting everything you need. Beware of diets that eliminate all, or most of, one of these macronutrients. Each plays a vital role in your body’s functioning, as well as your hunger level, and it’s important to get the right amounts of each (the specific amounts will vary from person to person).
Many people who successfully achieve their desired weight loss believe they can then go back to eating their favorite foods and live happily ever after in their new body. Unfortunately, for long-term weight loss this is not how it works. It’s important that you learn how to eat appropriately, a skill in and of itself, to ensure you are satisfying your hunger within your daily calorie goal. Fail to develop this skill, and you will continually fight unnecessary food cravings that can lead to major setbacks.
Burden of Responsibility
One of the researchers is quoted saying, “The difficulty in keeping weight off reflects biology, not a pathological lack of willpower affecting two-thirds of the U.S.A.” This is misleading, in that it places the responsibility for weight loss solely into the hands of biology. It echoes a sentiment that an individual, lacking the necessary pre-determined biological support, can do little to successfully lose and maintain weight loss. This is just not true. Yes, there are biological processes at work (i.e. metabolism adjustments). Yes, these processes happen automatically and predictably. However, the ability to alter your weight is not subject to some outside force that you have no control over. If done correctly, all of those biological processes can be manipulated to achieve your desired goals.
You are not at a loss of control over the ability to manipulate your body. This is not meant to shame anyone for being unable to lose weight or stick to a fitness program, because it is, without a doubt, a very tough thing to do. However, accepting that your health is largely your responsibility can help you realize that it is up to you to do what is necessary to improve it. You may get cravings, but you still decide what gets eaten. Your metabolism slows, but you can decide to do what’s necessary to reverse it. The sooner an individual realizes it is their own responsibility to change themselves, the better off they will be in pursuing their goals.
While many factors went into the contestants regaining their lost weight, you do not have to suffer the same fate. The body is an amazing machine, and will adjust to the demands placed upon it. Strategic planning and taking the appropriate approach to weight loss can ensure that you not only lose, but maintain your body weight for the long-haul. Weight loss is not exclusive to those few who were born with good genetics, it is a goal that is attainable by anyone. It can be achieved by anyone who is willing to do what it takes, to do what is appropriate, and to take responsibility for the process.